The last three years have been somber, sobering and not much fun, with only intermittent beams of sunlight. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the same goes for Our Pathetic Age, DJ Shadow’s first record since before the 2016 election. Shadow’s music has never been overtly political, but rarely has an electronic music collection felt so lashed to the times, intentionally or not.
Ever since the first EDM gold rush of the late Nineties — before it was even called that, of course — many of that era’s mix-master DJs have struggled to reinvent themselves or take their music to another level, especially as electronic music and hip hop progressed. Shadow’s 1996 LP Entroducing… was a turntablist masterpiece, but like Moby, the Chemical Brothers and other brethren in beats, the artist known to his friends as Josh Davis struggled to top himself after his own breakout moment. In recent years, Shadow made a genre-spanning record (2011’s The Less You Know, the Better) with obscure collaborators that felt like a stroll through Coachella, and followed it with 2016’s The Mountains Will Fall, which pared down the eclecticism of its predecessor and had more energy than any of his records since Entroducing…
In another departure, Our Pathetic Age is intentionally bipolar. Its first half is devoted to the biggest chunk of original instrumental music he’s released, and it comes with lovely, welcome surprises. Built around a simple piano part that eventually erupts into a mini-orchestral blast, “Firestorm” feels strangely traditional — like a modern-day “Chariots of Fire” – but opens up new musical vistas for him. Still, what he calls the “Instrumental Suite” half of the album is dominated by dark, clattery Eighties-inspired tracks that feel on edge. “Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law” glides by on sputtering synths that make it sound as if the track is on the verge of collapse: New Age music for a tenser time.
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The album’s second half jams together another half dozen tracks, almost entirely alliances with hip hop artists. The collaborators range from old-schoolers (Nas, members of Wu-Tang Clan) to relative newbies like Stro and Wiki. Not every track hits hard, but the “Vocal Suite” still feels like a cohesive album, and its punchiest tracks take many involved to a level they haven’t reached in years. Rubbery rhythms propel the thrilling “Rocket Fuel,” featuring De La Soul, and “Drone Warfare,” which pairs Nas with another old-school New York rapper, Pharoahe Monch, works itself up into a turntable-art lather that recalls the glory days of that movement two decades ago. R&B and roots balladeer Fantastic Negrito and MC/producer Jumbo is Dr.ama are woven into “Dark Side of the Heart,” which blends hip hop and R&B and lets it simmer.
Even on the sweeter notes – like the title song, which plops Future Islands’ Sam Herring into plush pop — the vocal half of Our Pathetic Age still feels agitated and mournful, even bleak. One of his requisite crate excavations results in a forlorn hook from “Rain or Snow” by Sixties British pop singer Samantha Jones. But again, take it as another sign of the times: Not life imitating art, but the other, significant way around.